Like amorphous ghosts rising from their graves, the fog gathered thickly among the low peaks, concealing their secrets. Its nebulous and fringed shapes moved steadily, sometimes meshed together and sometimes individually as if drawn by some unheard, sombre chant. Through a cloud, the sun little showed itself as a miry, crystalline sphere. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran, whose name means “Content One”, sat on a rock below in the village and imagined that the fog was composed of the very essence of his dead ancestors. Anxiously, he felt as though they were weighing his heart. Today, he was expected to battle this and many other elements on his own, and in so doing, prove himself to be a man.
Just as his father once did and many Shis-Inday before him, it was his turn to venture into the sacred mountains with the purpose of finding and slaying a black bear. Since bears are evil, the slaying of one for its claws is seen as a noble deed. Only then, would Para-ah-dee-ah-tran make the passage from boyhood to manhood. Yesterday, the chief Itza-chu, that is “Great Hawk”, announced to all that he would be leaving on his journey and the people came forward to bid good-bye. At the twilight hour, an endearing prayer, initiated by the medicine man named Natch-in-ilk-kisn, meaning “Colored Beads”, and repeated by the villagers, was prayed over him. After restless sleeping and a light rain shower, however, it all seemed very remote, especially in the vapid light of morning.
Throughout the village, people were stirring slowly. Mothers sat with their babies propped up in their laps as they fed them. Some men sat about a fire pit, smoking and mumbling among themselves. Two young girls, not far from him, were already cutting and stitching buckskin into men's pants. Further down, he was pleased to spot the face of the one who'd captured his heart, the one who make him feel good on his worst days, and that was the face of Nadah-neh-ii, “Butterflies Flutter on Top”, so named because immediately after being born, two butterflies landed on her nose, which had made her giggle. A cover of warmth slipped over him. She carried a small, earthen pot, which she'd made. Her eyes, as large as deer's, were fixed upon him.
With a flat expression, she offered him the contents of the pot. He took it and drank. It was mescal water. Looking about her first, she said lowly, “This morning, Natch-in-ilk-kisn found a dead eagle in front of his wikiup. He says it's an omen.”
Para-ah-dee-ah-tran mulled it over. This had never happened before. “Did he say if it was an omen for me or for everybody?”
Her nose wrinkled. “He said he couldn't tell but he'd already returned the eagle to the earth away from camp and that that was the best thing to do.”
He took her hand. While her face showed not the slightest amount of hardship, her hands told a different story. They were rough from cleaning, cooking, fetching water, grinding corn, sewing with the thorns of a barrel cactus, chipping obsidian into spears, collecting wood and all the other chores expected of young maidens. They were the hands of a diligent worker. He loved them. “Don't worry. Life Giver will favor me. I'm not asking to be chief. I will receive my good fortune.”
His words seemed to put back the strength in her eyes for she nodded. “For your humility, I hope Life Giver will be with you. Be swift like a coyote.” She took her pot and left him with his thoughts.
It was after the fog lifted and the sun began to sparkle that Para-ah-dee-ah-tran said good-bye to Itza-chu and departed the village. As he walked those first steps, he didn't need to look behind to feel a hundred pairs of eyes, including his father's, upon him. They always stared awhile before disbanding, perhaps wishing good luck silently or reflecting on their own journey in the distant past. Without a real plan as to where to go, he began towards the first canyon he saw. Over his shoulder, he carried the satchel he'd packed last night, which was filled with his survival needs. His other shoulder had strapped crisscross to it his sheath full of arrows and in his left hand, he carried his bow. Stepping lightly, his moccasins missed miry potholes. The distinct, earthy smell of rain filled his nostrils. Ahead was a canyon that was seasonally more verdant than normal. The coloring was due to wingnuts, which had miniscule white flowers barely visible to the eye and from a distance, they passed for grass. Huge boulders that dwarfed men were strewn amid the canyon. He skirted his way around these and proceeded forward. Hoodoos along the cliffs and other anthropoid shapes cast of stone solemnly observed his trek. Soon, his village was out of sight.
For many hours, he walked without sighting any animals. If he was to find a bear, it would be at a higher elevation, where the desert mixes with the forest in a bipolar kind of way and cacti live alongside ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Occasionally, the bears, in a season of distress, would straggle into the lower hills but this wasn't common and the recent rain guaranteed that they'd remain higher up. Around noon, he used his knife to make a quick meal of prickly pear and its tuna. Always, he would go forth and then stop to catch his breath throughout and kept moving ever higher.
Things that would bring a smile to his face he thought of often, like Nadah-neh-ii. For months, he had begun to notice in her a new woman. It was funny but before, she had blended in with all the other girls. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran was different from other boys who were also in their mid-teens. Some might call him weird but he thought that a wife should be more than just a worker for the husband; she should be more than a man-friend and be ever comely in his eyes. This was in stark contrast to the Shis-Inday's thinking and he never dared to voice his opinion. To them, this was folly. But he watched Nadah-neh-ii when she wasn't aware and noticed that she'd grown to be loyal and strong and for those she associated with the most, never had biting words. She was a better spirit than most and he counted these as the reasons why she should be his wife someday.
In fact, it was because of her that he told his father he was ready for this rite of passage. Unless a boy had become a man, he couldn't ask any maiden for marriage; it was forbidden. The girls had their own ceremony in which she was specially arrayed with beads and flowers and shut away into a separate wikiup overnight while the women and girls prayed for her. It was uncomplicated, nothing like the men's puberty rite. Nadah-neh-ii already had hers and this was his inspiration. How much better would he live up to his namesake if he married her?
At various times, he thought of his father, Eskiminzin, which is “Men Stand in Line for Him”, who was named as such for his fantastic prophecies that held much wonder for the Shis-Inday. Never was he present when his father received a vision but he remained curious of his father's method, if there was one. Eskiminzin spoke of a catastrophic event that would scatter all Shis-Inday, that a strange people learned beyond their imagination were coming to take their land. As the Shis-Inday had never seen pale men which Eskiminzin described, the prophecy made little sense and some mocked him while others believed. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran didn't know what to make of this; he could only respect his father and turned away from people who mocked him as well. He also thought about his brother, who before getting married and leaving for his wife's clan, used to sneak up on him amid the cornfields and sling-shot a rock into his back, laugh like a rabid pack of coyotes and then run away. He hadn't seen him for many moons and probably, he had a baby by now.
Under a canopy of silvery stars, Para-ah-dee-ah-tran slept the next two nights. His only fire kept one side of his body warm but always on the other side, a finger of cool air would tickle his neck. He was grateful it hadn't rained. All about him, silhouettes undulated rapidly with the roar of the fire and he wondered if the mountain spirits of whom Itza-chu spoke fondly lived in those figures or if they remained obscure, like one with the air. Either way, it was comforting to think that he wasn't alone. The crickets serenaded him into a peaceful slumber in which, upon waking, he remembered no dreams.
On the third day, he continued to hike upwards, ever striving to reach those sun-blessed forested heights and suddenly when he looked up and about the canyon, he noticed a stout Douglas fir that seemed to only grow because it'd taken root in a wash. Down the canyon, he could see more, better-looking ones growing prosperously. Soon, he passed an island of pines and their perfumed scent wafted in his nose. He saw a quetzal to his joy, a strangely iridescent songbird whose tail feathers contrast sharply with their black and white stripes. It flit among the boughs and cocked its head, as if both curious and nervous about him. If there was ever to be a good luck charm, he reasoned that the quetzal should be one and thought it strange that nobody else before him had figured such a thing.
It was while he sat upon a boulder to eat hackberries that he first spotted it: across the wash from where he sat, he saw the wall of the canyon come together in a curious way as if it weren't quite in one piece and in the center were many pines clustered together. Beyond that, it looked as if there might be a new and hidden canyon. So good was the effect of the trickery, that unless one stopped as he had, one could have been convinced that this was one long continuous canyon with no tributaries. Looking at it was a little intimidating because it was very brushy and seemed to only permit a small animal. Sense told him that if it was anything like a box canyon, that would be a good place to trap a bear.
Springing like a yearling across the rocks, he approached the brush. One pine tree blocked the view perfectly and from it spawned many jojobas that competed for water and this was enough to shroud the crevice because it behaved like a spout. To the right side, it was clearer so by crouching and pulling back twigs, he was able to step through. The pass was narrow, only two feet wide and above him, two canyon walls intersected, therefore hiding it. This, he discovered, lead to a long, narrower canyon whose terminus could not be seen. His hopes for a box canyon were dashed but since it was so well camouflaged, he was curious.
For a few hours, he walked and just when he felt like he was deep inside, a furtive movement ahead distracted him and he looked in time to see a white-tailed deer prancing away. Walking a little further, he found a waterhole, recently replenished by the rain, from which the deer must have watered itself. It was clear and abundantly deeper than the other pathetic-looking waterholes he'd seen. The deer were drawn to it; so would be the bears. Above, the canyon wall had many boulders stacked together, which would serve as a lookout perfectly. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran scaled his way up. At the top, a gaping hole commanded his attention and he was surprised to discover that it was a cave, barely bigger than a manhole, just smaller in height than himself and ideal for a retreat from the cold.
The noontime sun poured in and in this way, he could see the end, a nice length of twenty feet. It may have been natural long ago but Indian hands surely had expanded it since its genesis for the sake of a hunt. Here Para-ah-dee-ah-tran would take refuge. Wood was chopped and piled inside. To cover his scent, he smeared the pulp from a cactus across his exposed skin. From the waterhole, he refilled his pot and for food, he collected jojoba nuts and closed pine cones, which with the help of a flame would open to provide him with seeds.
That evening, he started a fire close to the entrance of that little cave. From the canyon breezes which had plagued him the previous nights, he was sheltered. With much satisfaction, he lay down, bundled up in his blankets like a papoose. The cricket sounds filled the encroaching night and the coziness of his dwelling soon lulled him into an abysmal sleep.
Obscurity gave way to a dream state in which he was aware that he was dreaming but lacked the willpower to stop it. He was in a beautiful canyon bestudded with thousands of wildflowers, a dream indeed because he'd never seen so many wildflowers in real life. Nadah-neh-ii was there, with her hair flowing down as a dark river. They were walking hand in hand. With a laugh of confusion, she stopped to point out a quetzal, perched on top of a saguaro. Instead of a cheerful chirp, the quetzal gave a drawn-out, mournful howl. Why would it do such a thing? As much as he wanted it to tweet happily and tried to dream it, it refused and Para-ah-dee-ah-tran grew irritated to the point that he roused himself.
It was black. He sat up to find that his fire had become a lump of smoking ash and the wind had picked up a bit, which lashed the cave's mouth with a whipping sound. Outside, the stars twinkled in the inky sky. And then he heard it: the same cry from his dream, only real, a cry which he could not identify. He could only imagine what kinds of beasts issued forth such a sound. It was not the howl of a coyote and the weirdness of it troubled his heart. He heard it reverberate from a point way south of the canyon. Again and again, it came and puzzled him. The crickets, he became distinctly aware, didn't make a sound such that they were probably just as perplexed as him. Could it have been the wail of a revengeful mountain spirit? He'd been warned that mountain spirits disliked arrogant men roaming the ancient burial grounds but surely he'd done nothing wrong. No more wails came and he sat wide-eyed, looking through the tiny portal to the innocent sky, waiting ... and then the cricket sounds resumed slowly, as if they were testing the night. It was awhile before Para-ah-dee-ah-tran convinced himself to lay back down and close his eyes.
After finally falling asleep again, he had a disturbing dream in which a black-hooded ghoul descended to his cave by gliding through the air and he was sitting up and watching the thing approach with dread. The wind howled as if it were alive and the ghoul's robe, blacker than night itself, whipped about wildly. Its eyes were non-existent; just empty holes in the silken cloth. Even as he stared into those nothing eyes, he began to beg for his life. The thing reached out to him with a skeletal hand, then he broke from sleep, sat up quickly and with a gasp, saw the morning calm. His fire was dead cold. But he little thought of the nightmare as he remembered how the night had unfolded. Whatever the strange howl was, the morning gave no indication of it. Down at the waterhole, all was still.
For the remainder of the morning, he staked it out. Nothing came, not even so much as a deer. Time dragged and he grew bored. As he realized his defeat, he sighed and at about noon, he left to gather more supplies. Although animals mostly watered in the morning, the evening would provide another opportunity and it'd still be worth a try. The cave sheltered him from a sweltering afternoon. When the sun had changed to red and was about to disappear behind the canyon's rim, he again reclined and sat very still on the outcropping of rocks. Two boulders mostly shrouded him but there was a view of the waterhole between them. At his side were two arrows laid out, ready to go.
Para-ah-dee-ah-tran was watching the shadow grow long behind a pine when he noticed motion far down the canyon. It was a startling, springy motion. Some kind of animal must have been galloping this way. It was black and large but far too fast to be a bear. He stared hard, trying to figure out what it was for his vision was not so keen. And then he heard that long wail of last night, only much closer and he was awestruck by the discovery. Closer and closer, it bounded and he realized it was running on two legs. The clarity of it brought a shock to his fragile mind as he took in a hairy, black creature with a barrel chest from which two reptilian arms protruded and swung with its gait. More alarming than that was its head, its worst, most loathsome feature of all, being reptilian also in nature, having two black horns and smoldering red eyes. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran sat cluelessly rigid as the creature bounded up to the waterhole, stopped at its edge and leaned its body over awkwardly to lap at the water. Curved claws gripped the dirt as it steadied itself. Muscular legs flexed as it did this.
He scarcely dared to breathe. As the thing drank, his sense returned. The elders had described various beasts of the forest, which some of them claimed to have seen personally and not one had this likeness. Did they not know of this one or were the mountain spirits shapeshifting so as to tease him? Whatever it was, it was certainly more evil than a bear and more hideous to look upon. A bear has a more prideful existence than this thing of unnatural nastiness. He felt that it didn't deserve to live. And just when he thought this, though Para-ah-dee-ah-tran had made no motion, the creature erected itself abruptly and turned to stare right at him, its pupils narrowing as it even looked through him, those eyes bright like burning embers.
There was no time to think. He grabbed his bow and sheath full of arrows and scampered up the rocks. Behind him, he heard a new sound, a shrill scream as of anger, one which nearly melted his heart. Without turning, he clambered up, never having reacted so quickly in all his life before. Just as he leapt into the manhole, he felt something clip his right calf and he knew the creature had actually touched him for its presence was very heavy upon him. From the back of the cave, he stared while the creature fiercely made lunging motions with its forearms. It was too big to squeeze through. It clawed at the fragile entrance which broke and fell in clumps but otherwise, it could not reach Para-ah-dee-ah-tran. The creature shrieked at him, filling the cave with that awful sound and from its mouth, nasty saliva dripped onto the rocks. For the first time, he noticed the knife-like teeth it bared as it snapped at him. His heart raced almost out of control and yet a small part of him knew that for now, he was safe. Too distracted to look, he only half-realized that his calf burned.
Para-ah-dee-ah-tran thought of his arrows and that he should try them, though the creature seemed impenetrable and he couldn't begin to guess where its heart lie. He aimed one at the center of its great chest and let it fly. The arrow went in a considerable depth but only served to infuriate the creature. It let out a scream but it continued to claw at him with the arrow still stuck. Regretfully, he'd left two arrows behind and there weren't enough arrows to keep fighting it. He struck the beast four more times, hoping it would give up on him before thinking to hit it in a sensitive area, like an eye. So he loaded another arrow as it stared with the comprehension of a lizard but when he let the arrow go, the creature happened to snap at him at the same time and it lodged in the roof of its mouth. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran watched with hope as it shrank back in obvious pain. Oddly, it took the arrow gimpishly with its two hands and pulled it out, although it didn't seem possible for it to do. Blood spurted out and mixed with the saliva so now as it snapped at him, horribly bloody saliva hit the rocks.
Without explanation, the creature backed away and seemed to lug itself down the canyon. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran's heart raced and he sought to slow it down. It was apparent that it was not giving up, only retreating for he could hear snorting just outside. It was going to wait for him. His food and water weren't substantial. The creature, having an instinct foreign to him, would probably be more patient. It would wait and wait until he was dead if necessary. How would he ever get home?
His calf gave a surge of pain so he dared to look at it in the fading light. The claw had drawn a long, shredding mark along the muscle, but he tested it and realized that it wasn't terribly deep, just putting out enough blood to make it look more serious than it was. If he taped it up with a piece of blanket, he could keep the skin attached and medicate it later with ironwood sap. Using his knife, he cut a square and two long, skinny pieces with which to tie the square and neatly wrapped it. The blanket soaked up much of the blood. He then rested his back on the furthest point inside the cave and stretched his legs in front. Twilight descended and still the creature was present, sometimes snorting below or filling the night with that damnable howl and at other times, peering in at him with a suspicious glare.
Para-ah-dee-ah-tran built up a fire and reclined, with one less blanket than before. He ate what little food he had before attempting to close his eyes and catnap to the best of his ability, a truly monumental feat. The flames drew the attention of the creature and yet, it seemed to detest the fire. Intermittently, the creature would perch on the outcropping like an eagle and its illuminated head seemed to hover above the flames as its baccate eyes, eerie and devilish, pierced the dark. He hated looking for he knew that that image would forever remain etched in his mind and would plague him with doubts only immortals are fit to possess. It was a long night from which he garnered hardly any sleep.
At the first hint of morning, the last star twinkled out and Para-ah-dee-ah-tran drew up his head warily with some hope. A small remnant of his fire smoked but gave no light. There was no more wood. He listened for a long time, too leery to approach the entrance for fear that he'd be suddenly snatched away. He set an arrow in his bow, aimed it for the rocks across the canyon and shot. The head squarely struck a boulder and bounced back with a curious pinging sound. This evoked a growl and some grunting from the invisible air at which Para-ah-dee-ah-tran sighed and closed his eyes. He whispered some barely audible words up to Life Giver, pleading. If only to detach himself from the horrid creature and remove its physicality from his mind, he smeared soot on his fingers and drew the entirety of the creature upon the wall, drawing from the top its horns and round eyes down to its body, which was turkey-like in structure more than he previously realized, and finished it with claws.
It was another protracted hour as he reclined before he heard the creature's slow footsteps on loose gravel. He heard various sounds of movement, including the chirping of birds, which seemed so at odds with the situation. And then he was brought to his feet by a squeal and a terrific roar and there followed such a commotion, so rude to him, he half-believed that the mountain spirits were clashing with each other. Like last night, his heart raced. Did he dare look below? His knife felt advantageous so as he held it ready, he crept to the mouth. Slowly, he became stunned by the sight of a massive black bear standing on its hindquarters and swiping at the punctured creature.
Para-ah-dee-ah-tran had never seen such a fight as this, not even between two natural animals. The bear seemed to be the best enemy for this creature and his heart became hopeful that the bear would win. Both drew blood as they took turns alternatively swiping at and wrestling each other. But the bear was heavyset and lumbering and as it swiped and missed, the creature lunged with its head and impaled him with its horns. The bear wailed. The beast withdrew and its horns dribbled bright red in the morning sun while the bear lurched and fell to the edge of the waterhole. Woefully, Para-ah-dee-ah-tran watched the creature put a foot on the bear's shoulder and tear through his flesh with its teeth. It morseled on the bear as one morsels on berries. What a disappointment! If only the bear had won, he could have then handled the bear with ease. Entrails and organs were exposed and the creature ate its fill.
When it finished, he then saw the most amazing thing. The creature raised its head suddenly upwards to peer at him. The blood from its horns dripped terribly around the holes that he presumed were ears and its nose was stained with blood. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran's vitriol burned strong as it licked its chops emotionlessly and stared at him with the cruel insouciance akin to the animal kingdom. Quite suddenly, it turned away, making him flinch, and trotted off in the same direction from whence it'd come and all Para-ah-dee-ah-tran could do was watch in disbelief. The creature, good and fed, no longer held an interest in him. His fear melted away but just to make sure, he watched for a long time until the creature became but a speck on the horizon.
This was the moment of his escape and he swore a sacrifice of elk to Life Giver. His affects were scooped up and stuffed into the satchel. He made his way down to the canyon floor and stopped at the sight of the mangled carcass. The rite of passage weighed heavily upon his mind. Para-ah-dee-ah-tran approached the great bear, almost feeling a touch of pity for the wicked thing, before taking up his knife and sawing through ligaments and bones to remove a front paw. When it separated, he wrapped it in a blanket, thinking it unwise to declaw it there on the spot, and crammed the blanket into his satchel. With that, he took off running steadily in the direction of the canyon entrance which was so well hidden.
His strength abounded and he had a great expectation of seeing Nadah-neh-ii again and so his return trip passed quicker than the itinerary, as it always seems to happen that way. One more night was spent in isolation, which he passed half-way asleep. But the next day, he arrived at his village around noon, where he was cheered. A feast of white-tailed deer was prepared and Nadah-neh-ii promised with a beaming face to make a necklace with the bear claws. That evening, the whole camp was stirred as Para-ah-dee-ah-tran told them, with Itza-chu, Eskiminzin and the elders sitting closest, about the strange creature he'd encountered. His wound was proof. Believing in a pantheon of supernatural beings as they did, it was easy to explain and his story was retold generation after generation, even after they forgot his name.
Thousands of years later, white people came and settled the region. The mountain range was christened the Chiricahua Mts., part of which became a national park. Still, it was many years more until the canyon was discovered and aptly named Hidden Canyon, in which the white people first set eyes upon a petroglyph of a strange, bipedal monstrosity, hairy and awful, with claws and horns, and wondered at it. The Apaches were nonchalant about this discovery. Neither were they disturbed when an archaeological team went in to study the canyon overnight and returned with a story of ominous and inexplicable howls emanating throughout the night.
© Copyright 2016 AmyMichelleMosier. All rights reserved.
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